HomeLes territoires dans la politique des nationalités minoritaires en Chine

HomeLes territoires dans la politique des nationalités minoritaires en Chine

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Published on Monday, January 10, 2022 by Céline Guilleux


La République populaire de Chine est constituée, sur plus de la moitié de sa superficie, de provinces et régions autonomes où les populations non han occupent entre un et deux cinquièmes de la population totale. La construction d’un État-nation moderne, désormais ouvert sur ses voisins, en font des périphéries dont le pouvoir central ne veut plus seulement s’assurer l’allégeance politique et l’exploitation économique mais aussi intégrer les populations et les territoires dans un discours unitaire sous couvert de développement national. La revue ÉchoGéo propose de réunir des contributions de géographes, d’anthropologues, de politologues ou de sociologues sur la place des territoires dans la politique des nationalités minoritaires en Chine, en privilégiant des cas d’études couvrant la variété des situations.



Over half of the land surface of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is composed of autonomous regions (AR) and provinces in which non-Han populations represent between one and two fifths of the total population (Inner Mongolia, Yunnan, Guizhou, Ningxia, Qinghai, Guangxi), over half in Xinjiang and over eight tenths in the AR of Tibet. These territories are generally located in border regions. The construction of a modern Nation State, now open to its neighbours, has created outlying areas in which the central authorities no longer wish simply to ensure political allegiance and generate economic gain, but also to integrate populations and territories within a unified discourse under the guise of national development. Today’s challenges now call into question the ethnic classifications and territorial attributions – at multiple levels and right across China – which were inherited from the start of the regime.

The invention of a multinational state

At the same time as the new communist power conducted the first national census in 1953 to count and locate populations across the entire PRC territory, it commissioned scientists to identify information for categorising non-Han peoples, using the example of Yunnan province, in the run up to the 1954 meeting of the National People’s Congress (Mullaney, 2010 and 2011). This classification is primarily based on language and, in 1979, the political authorities counted 55 minority nationalities (shaoshu minzu) and one majority nationality, the Hans (Gros, 2014). The PRC therefore defines itself as a multinational state (duominzu guojia).

The concept of minzu comes from Japanese translations of European theories on the Nation State, which were imported in the late 19th century. After 1949, this was supplemented by Stalin’s theory of nationalities, based on the USSR which had already adapted it in the 1930s and during the fight against Nazi Germany by promoting Russian history and culture, above all other nationalities. Although the Chinese authorities amalgamated different peoples with a shared or similar language while ignoring others, at the start of the regime, these were categories that recognised specific cultural and territorial identities within the Chinese State as a whole. They reconfigured the borders until the start of the reforms, after the cultural revolution. The introduction to the 1982 constitution sets out the importance of respecting minority nationalities and fighting against “Great Han chauvinism”.

This interpretation also falls within China’s long history and echoes the concept of huaxia, which encompassed Han and non-Han populations within a single, borderless civilisation, dating back to the pre-Imperial period. The Empire continued with this conception and made multiculturalism official in the 18th century when China extended into Tibet and the future Xinjiang region (Millward, 1998). Imperial documents are written in Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan and Uyghur, thereby prefiguring the five people groups that make up the Republic of China.

The changes introduced by the communist regime consist primarily of a much more varied political categorisation at a local level in the territories home to “ethnic minorities”. The production of minzu, especially in the south-west of the country, has paved the way to official research with institutions dedicated to minority nationalities, new management methods within a much denser territorial network than previously, and the promotion of minority identities since the 1980s, primarily to tourists.

National integration strategies

The creation of a minority nationalities policy was accompanied by new territorial divisions, groupings, subdivisions, and the creation of administrative bodies at province, prefecture, district and township level. The recognition of “ethnic minorities” has resulted in “autonomy” granted to some of these territories, officially allowing them to be governed by the largest minority nationality thanks to the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Regional National Autonomy which was adopted by the National People’s Congress in 1984. At the province level, autonomous regions (zizhiqu) were formed, comprising Inner Mongolia (created in 1947 for the Mongolian nationality), Xinjiang (1955 for the Uyghur nationality), Ningxia (1957, Hui nationality), Guangxi (1958, Zhuang nationality) and Tibet (1965, Tibetan nationality).

This new network does nevertheless contain some ambiguities. Through this, the central authorities effectively cut apart the Tibetan space from Qinghai (Amdo) province, lands currently located west of Sichuan (Kham) and abandoned territories in Xinjiang and Yunnan. In Guangxi, they created the “Zhuang” category, granting them an autonomous territory that encompassed other “minorities” (Palmer Kaup, 2000). These territorial manipulations were, above all, accompanied by strict control by the State authorities and the Party. The political integration of recognised “minority nationalities” within a multinational State is therefore based on authoritarian territorial management.

This geopolitical strategy from the central State is perceived and even managed differently depending on the nationalities in question. Those which previously had their own State and/or have a territory and culture different to the historical Han China, such as the Mongolians, Uyghurs and Tibetans, only have a fictitious autonomy, concealing a situation of colonialisation for local populations, with Han migrations organised or, at best, strongly encouraged by the Chinese government. It is different for the nationalities in the south-west, whose populations have long been integrated within the Chinese territory, where they can benefit from their minority status through advantages granted by the central State. These include family planning, local representation, a more lenient justice system, local-language education, professional promotions and all kinds of support systems.

In the 2000s, Beijing launched a western development policy (Xibu dakaifa). Officially, its purpose was to integrate the marginalised border regions and ethnic minorities located beyond the coast and Yangzi basin into a Chinese dynamic for development and integration within the national community. Tools included the creation of free trade zones for Chinese and foreign investment, and, above all, infrastructure expansion, especially rail and road networks, to connect the autonomous regions and provinces on the outskirts to the centre of the country. The greatest example of this is the Beijing-Lhasa railroad, which opened in 2006 to link the two cities in 48 hours. Soon, a new track will open to connect Lhasa to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, in 13 hours.

There is a legitimate developmentalist argument in discourse from the authorities, with the aim of integrating former marginal areas into the national territory so that they can become outskirts of the Chinese centre and strategic geopolitical markets opening out into Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent and South-East Asia. The purpose is no longer to recognise specific territories and non-Han nationalities within the borders of the PRC, but to assimilate them within a unified and homogenous territory of the Chinese Nation State.

Local territories facing a new national narrative

The political category of minzu and the “autonomy” of territories for minority nationalities are now being discussed in the central government, which argues that the riots of March 2008 in Lhasa and July 2009 in Ürümqi are grounds for challenging the concepts established at the start of the regime. The 4th Central Ethnic Work Conference in 2014 insisted on the fact that the 56 nationalities and territorial autonomies are now set in stone and that it is no longer possible to add any more. Above all, ethnic minority governments no longer solely represent their own populations but must work within the Nation State to responsibly administrate over territories that have become multi-ethnic, including Hans, who have often become the majority, and other minorities. They therefore have the function of explicitly relaying central power (Leibold, 2013; Ma, 2018).

Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012-2013 shifted the issue by insisting on a new national narrative of Greater China made up of multiple contributors. In his key speeches of 2017 and 2018, the main minzu was the “Chinese nation” (zhonghua minzu). Although ethnic singularities and territorial “autonomy” were reaffirmed, the authorities must now promote national unity above all. Genghis Khan is therefore no longer described as a brilliant Mongolian conqueror but as a figure from Chinese history (Bulag, 2002).

This brings national discourse into line with previous debate by researchers such as Ma Rong, Director of the Institute of Sociology and Anthropology at Peking University, who promoted the “culturalisation” of the ethnic issue, instead of its initial “politicisation”, ten years earlier, replacing the concept of “nationality” (minzu) with “ethnic group” (zuqun) and the emergence of Chinese citizens with no special rights associated with their ethnic origin in order to build a modern Nation State (Ma, 2007).

The territories of “minority nationalities” have therefore become strategic geopolitical issues both internally and externally. In the past, they were on the ethnic margins, often in border regions, that the regime controlled to lock in the borders of the PRC. Now, they have become places that represent a risk of disruption or even separatism in the eyes of the communist power – with the totalitarian control and forced sinification of populations in Tibet and Xinjiang. They are regions whose resources justify forced integration into the Chinese economic area and places that open out into neighbouring countries, such as the Dzungarian basin located along a major railroad leading to Europe via Kazakhstan.

This feature in ÉchoGéo magazine proposes combining contributions by geographers, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists on the role of territories in the minority nationalities policy, with a focus on case studies covering a variety of situations. The construction, instrumentalisation and recompositions of these territories are a result of the action of both the central authorities and their relays, but also the minority nationalities themselves at the local levels. They are linked to the political categories used and to the discourses presented since the establishment of the PRC. Nowadays, the issue of territories and minorities has taken on new importance for the economic development of an integrated national territory open to globalisation, and for affirming a political narrative focused on the multinational unity of a “Chinese nation” (zhonghua minzu). This feature will contribute more broadly to reflection on the role of minorities and ethnicity in state dynamics.

The proposed articles may focus on the implications for ethnic minorities of the “Chinese dream” (zhongguo meng), to use the expression from Xi Jinping’s era. Tourism plays a key role in promoting the idea of the nation by showcasing the founding principles of political and territorial unity (David, 2007). The case studies could explore the political motives of tourism and the cultural policies accompanying these economic development projects. How do these new national integration strategies benefit from considerations of the past and the instrumentalisation of culture and history? Other issues to explore include the effects of administrative divisions on the “ethnic” status of a territory, from a historical perspective (e.g. when the nationalities were established) or in the current period in the light of an increase in labour mobility. Is Han migration to ethnic minority territories likely to call into question their special administrative status in the long term? Or is maintaining the status quo actually aimed at promoting a fictitious diversity and ethnic recognition?

Submission guidelines

The articles in this feature may be written in French, English or Spanish and contain between 35,000 and 40,000 characters (plus illustrations). Please refer to the author recommendations for guidelines on how to present the text, bibliography, abstracts and illustrations, as set out in the editorial guidelines. Texts may also be submitted on this topic for other Echogeo’s quarterly sections: Sur le Métier (On the Job), Sur l’Image (On Image) and Sur l’Écrit (On Writing). They must comply with the expectations of each section, as set out in the editorial lines. For example, editors of the On Image section expect texts that provoke reflection on the status of image in geographical research and/or writing.

All proposals must be sent by 15 September 2022

to Béatrice David (bdavid@univ-paris8.fr) and Thierry Sanjuan (tsanjuan@univ-paris1.fr), who are the coordinators of this feature, with a copy sent to Karine Delaunay (EchoGeo@univ-paris1.fr), Editorial Secretary, who will send them to the reviewer(s). The feature will be published in issue n° 63 (January-March 2023).

Feature coordination

Béatrice David is an Anthropology Lecturer at Université de Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint Denis (UMR 8238 Legs) and Thierry Sanjuan is a Geography Professor at Université de Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne (UMR 8586 Prodig).

References cited

Allès É., 2013. L’islam de Chine. Un islam en situation minoritaire. Paris, Karthala, 192 p.

Barnett R., Akimer S. (dir.), 1994. Resistance and Reform in Tibet. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 320 p.

Bulag U. E., 2002. The Mongols at China’s Edge. History and the Politics of National Unity. Lanham, Boulder, New York et Oxford, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 288 p.

Bulag U. E., 2021. Minority nationalities as Frankenstein’s monsters? Reshaping “the Chinese nation” and China’s quest to become a “normal country”. The China Journal, vol. 86, p. 46-67.

Colin S., 2011. La Chine et ses frontières. Paris, Armand Colin, 288 p.

David B., 2007, Tourisme et politique : la sacralisation touristique de la nation en Chine. Hérodote, n° 125, p. 143-156.

Gros S., 2014. Devenirs identitaires dans les confins sino-tibétains : contextes et transformations. In Gros S. (dir.), Des mondes en devenir : interethnicité et production de la différence en Chine du Sud-Ouest. Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie, vol. 23, p. 63-102.

Harrell S., 1995. Introduction : civilizing projects and the reaction to them. In Harrell S. (dir.), Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers. Seattle et Londres, University of Washington Press, p. 3-36.

Leibold J., 2013. Ethnic Policy in China: Is Reform Inevitable? Honolulu, University of Hawai, East-West Center, Policy Studies n° 68, 65 p.

Ma R., 2007. A new perspective in guiding ethnic relations in the twenty-first century: “depolitization” of ethnicity in China. Asian Ethnicity, vol. 8, n° 3, p. 199-217.

Ma R., 2018. « Xi Jinping tongzhi jinqi jianghua zhiyin woguo minzu gongzuo de fangxiang” [Les récents discours du Camarade Xi Jinping guident la direction de notre travail ethnique]. Zhongyang shehui zhuyi xueyuan xuebao [Revue de l’Institut central du socialisme], n° 3, p. 121-126.

Mackerras C., 2003. China’s Ethnic Minorities and Globalization. London, New-York, Routledge, 216 p.

Mackerras C., 1994. China’s Minorities. Integration and Modernization in the Twentieth century. Hong Kong, Oxford, New York, Oxford University press, 364 p.

Millward J. A., 1998. Beyond the Pass: Economy, Ethnicity, and Empire in Qing Central Asia, 1759-1864. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 380 p.

Mullaney T. S., 2010. Seeing from the state: the role of social scientist in China’s ethnic classification project. Asian Ethnicity, vol. 11, n° 3, p. 325-342.

Mullaney T. S., 2011. Coming to Terms with the Nation. Ethnic Classification in Modern China. Berkeley, University of California Press, 256 p.

Palmer Kaup K., 2000. Creating the Zhuang. Ethnic Politics in China. Boulder et Londres, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 226 p.

Sanjuan T. (dir.), 2000. Les marges culturelles du territoire chinois. Géographie et cultures, n° 34, 143 p.

Thoraval J., 1999. La notion d’ethnicité appliquée à l’univers culturel chinois. Perspectives chinoises, n° 54, p. 44-59.

Yeh E., 2013. Taming Tibet. Landscape Transformation and the Gift of Development. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 344 p.


  • Thursday, September 15, 2022


  • nationalité minoritaire, développement économique, dynamique étatique, récit national


  • Béatrice David
    courriel : beatrice [dot] david-chan [at] univ-paris8 [dot] fr
  • Thierry Sanjuan
    courriel : tsanjuan [at] univ-paris1 [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Karine Delaunay
    courriel : karine [dot] delaunay [at] ird [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Les territoires dans la politique des nationalités minoritaires en Chine », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, January 10, 2022, https://calenda.org/952207

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